In Bali With Baggage: Madai

[read earlier parts of "In Bali With Baggage" here]

Is it possible to avoid the snare of Bali’s cheap drink, massages, great food and beaches to hit the countryside and visit temples? It seems like it’d take some will power. But as indicated in earlier installments, I come from educational film stock. Not amusement park ride stock so, not to brag or anything, but I think I can handle it.

I approach one of the stands on the street that advertises tour guides. For not very much money at all, I’m told I can rent a car with a driver who would take me around all day, from morning until night, showing me rice fields, volcanoes, farms, villages and temples. I ask if I can get a driver who speaks English and they assure me I can. But then the next day, they send me Madai.

Madai can only speak about a dozen words of English but with them, he does a great job of expressing regret for being 15 minutes tardy. He’s in his early 20s and has a very sympathetic face that he’s able to make even more sympathetic by crinkling his brow in a universal show of “what can you do?”

I get into the back of his minivan, feeling like a visiting dignitary. About a half hour into the trip, Madai speaks for the first time. He stops the car and points at a billboard. He mimes snapping a photograph and then points at me.

It appears to be an advertisement for a restaurant. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I take a picture of it.

During our road trip, many of our conversations go like this: after seeing men on the street wearing festive looking paper party hats, I ask Madai why this is.

“For wood,” he says.

“Wood?” I ask. “To carry wood on their heads?” I tap the top of my head.

“Wood. Wood.”

“Wood?”

“No! Not wood. God.”Our route is made up of one-lane highways, and Madai likes to pass as often as is possible. And this is something he seems to almost exclusively do on turns – sharp ones – while going uphill.

Along the road it looks like this: rice field. McDonald’s billboard. Junkyard. Rooster. Hovel. Luxury hotel. Beautiful natural vista. Children playing in the dirt. A temple. Graffiti for rock bands like Rancid.

There are also many signs advertising products that use the language of “the soul.” Even a dish detergent might employ “Journey of the soul” in its ad copy. (The night before, I came across a drink made of vodka, cranberry, pineapple and lychee syrup called “the soulgasm.”)

DH Lawrence said of Americans that they do the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. But I would argue that that isn’t just an American thing, but is the essence of being human. Right now, Madai is driving along, tattooed, smoking, toggling between radio stations that play Hindu chants and dance music. The spiritual lives alongside the workaday in an easy way that I can’t seem to grasp.

Madai pulls into a coffee plantation and introduces me to the manager. She makes an attempt at explaining to me kopi luwak, which I’ve never heard of before. Later I will look it up online and learn that it is the caviar of coffee and can go for $35 to $80 a cup; but just now, as she explains it to me, I can only think something is being horribly lost in the translation.

“The cat,” she says, “he eat coffee then he poo and it is very superior coffee.”

“What do you mean ‘the cat poo?’” I ask.

She points to her ass. She smiles. She is cute smiling and pointing to her ass.

I know I’m missing something – that she can’t actually be pointing to her ass. Maybe her hip? It’s a “hip” coffee? “Poo” is Balinese for “top rate”?

But we keep going back and forth, the pantomime becoming more and more explicit, until the conclusion is inevitable.

“You mean the cat shits out a coffee?” I ask.

We laugh and laugh as she nods her head, yes.

“Wow,” I say. “There’s no way I’m going to drink a cup of cat shit!”

“It doesn’t smell like poop,” she says sternly. It seems I’ve gone too far, stepped over a line. Still, each time she says the word poo, she points to her ass. We both do.

She takes me out back to a cage in the forest where inside I see a civet – a jungle cat – sleeping, surrounded by what appears to be berries.

I don’t want to insult her, the cat, or their livelihood and so botulism be damned! What is spirituality anyway if not a willingness to see past the material to the realm of ideas? And so I say yes to a cup of coffee that CNN once referred to as “crappacino.” And it doesn’t taste bad at all.

Check back tomorrow for part eight of Jonathan Goldstein’s series “In Bali With Baggage,” or follow the daily-updated thread here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tiltti]

In Bali With Baggage: A Night

[read earlier parts of "In Bali With Baggage" here]

I will give travel this: it gives us an excuse. It allows us to get away with things we never could back home. In Bali I can have beer with my breakfast. I can take three baths during the day. I can spend a great deal of mid afternoon time staring at a tree and thinking about trees without the risk of running into an old friend from high school or an ex-girlfriend’s father who always suspected I was a flake. Travel is permission to be absurd, to play, to make believe, to see that all things are make-believe. With its technicolored currency, Balinese rupees seem like the money in a 1960s LSD-inspired board game. It seems like the kind of money Ringo would use to buy magic seeds in “The Yellow Submarine.” By which I mean to say that we are reminded in travel that even the things we take most seriously, that we see as irrefutable metaphysical bottom lines, are relative. When we travel, we look at ourselves differently in the mirror. We talk to ourselves differently in the shower. We dream differently. What does it mean to dream upside down, on the other side of the Earth?

It is with these thoughts in mind that I decide to explore Bali’s nightlife. I should here say that I am not the type. My “going out” shirt makes me feel like I’m wearing a sandwich board that reads “What’s the use?” and bassy dance music makes me feel like I’m locked in a Polo cologne saturated car trunk. But partying is serious business in Bali. And partying means getting F’d up. Magic mushrooms are legal and bars have banners hanging outside that say things like, “All you can drink 100 k” which is about ten US dollars. And there’s “sexy partying,” too. In a horrible place called “Double D” there’s a huge poster on the wall with a quote from Michael Jordan, “Playing every games [sic] like it’s your last.” And just below it, a man approaches trying to sell me Viagra. He calls me brother as the song “Ice, Ice Baby” blares from ceiling speakers.

The streets of Bali seem to throb with bass. It’s the kind of thing that normally sends a “Retreat! Retreat!” message to my brain. When I think about all the things that bassy dance music has kept me from – the women I might have met, the pants I could have bought in stores I was too terrified to enter – it just seems unfair. Not tonight, though. I won’t let it.I sit down at a place called The Espresso Bar and watch a Balinese man phonetically sing the deep tracks from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” It is across the street from a place called Bounty, a foam bar disco with a sign above the door that reads, “Snow on the Bar Party.” Since I’m all in, I cut out and head to my first foam party, but when I get there it isn’t like I imagined. The floor mostly looks like an apartment laundry room when one of the machines has overflowed. There are suds, but you’d probably have to roll around on the floor like a rutting pig to get the full effect.

I watch a guy seated at a table who could pass for an old boiler repairman in a Mike Leigh film. He is seated with a woman who looks like a Polynesian weather girl. What is the story here? The man is actually picking his nose right now. Like he’s back home watching TV.

After spending most of the night pretty much hiding behind a cigarette machine, I realize that in Bali or back home, I’m just not much of a nightlife kind of guy. I decide that tomorrow I want to see the other side of Bali – the spiritual side. Tomorrow I want to see temples. Tomorrow is a new day and the great thing about a new day is that it actually is a new day.

Check back tomorrow for part seven of Jonathan Goldstein’s series “In Bali With Baggage,” or follow the daily-updated thread here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Carl Ottersen]

In Bali With Baggage: A Massage

[read earlier parts of "In Bali With Baggage" here]

Because they’re so cheap and good, I find myself wandering from massage to massage. I walk out of one and right into the next, like I’m trick-or-treating. In the Balinese style of massage, the masseuse gets up on the small of your back and rides you like a horse – a nice horse that has worked hard in the field all day and has earned his massage. And where as in Canada, I am viewed as pasty, here my whiteness is celebrated.

“My, how white you are, Mr. Jonathan,” they say after I’ve returned from an entire day sweating like a rotisserie chicken in the sun. And they are right. But rather than seeing me as some old white whale of a man in a Coen Brothers film, they see me as a delicate white flower – mid-’70s David Bowie.

I’m halfway through probably the worst massage I’ve ever gotten by one of the prettiest women I’ve ever been undressed in front of, a woman named Sara, when she stops all together and starts telling me her romantic troubles, the story of a British man who broke her heart. She’s been waiting for him to come back to Bali for going on two years. He sends her gifts in the mail, like the necklace she’s wearing.

“I don’t care about money,” she says. “I care about love.”She went to the doctor and he told her there was too much in her head.

“I was stupid,” she said.

She tells me about all the weight she lost out of lovesickness, how worried her mother was. She is 23 years old and, if I’m to believe it, today is her birthday.

If she is scamming me, setting out some kind of love trap, then it’s the long scam, the relationship scam. And it can hardly even be called a scam since it’s being executed so little kid-like. She’s telling me she believes in love, of all things, and she tells me this while looking into my eyes.

Lying there prone, hands behind my head, listening to her, I can’t help thinking that, if I had the guts, right now, this moment, could be the one where my whole life changes. It is indeed possible for me to extend my trip and court Sara. It is indeed possible that I could propose to her and, if I got really lucky, marry her and then bring her back with me to Canada. It is indeed possible to then have a pretty wife to call me Mr. Jonathan and compliment me on the wonderful whiteness of my skin. I mean, it couldn’t turn out any worse than some of my previous relationships – relationships where we had “things in common” and “spoke the same language.” Possibility fills the room like sunlight. But then my time to dream is up. Sara has another customer to handle like pizza dough while sharing her heartache.

[Check back on Monday for part six of Jonathan Goldstein's series "In Bali With Baggage," or follow the daily-updated thread here.]

[Photo credit: Flickr user HeyItsWilliam]

In Bali With Baggage: Getting A Look Around

[read earlier parts of "In Bali With Baggage" here]

Perhaps it is some fluke of Balinese grammar. Perhaps the words for “lonely” and “alone” are the same. But the hotel staff keeps asking me, “traveling lonely?” and I say, “Yes.”

“No friends?” they continue, just to make sure.

“No,” I say, feeling my nose being rubbed in it. “No friends.”

In my short time here, I’ve already learned that the Balinese are really sweet. Despite the surge in tourism – often a loud, drinky, druggy kind of tourism – they’ve retained their basic niceness. But if this wasn’t the case, why, I’d think they were sticking it to me.

“Oh no,” they say, making a frowny face. “You are traveling lonely, Mr. Jonathan.”

That’s another thing. They call me “Mr. Jonathan.” Respectfully, like I own a schmata factory. Like I’m Mr. T’s brother.

I walk out of the hotel and onto the street. The sun is bright, the air warm, and I am filled with nausea. Not the hangover kind but the French Existential kind. As always, on my first day of travel, I can’t help thinking of the city I come from, Montreal, empty of me and it makes me feel dead there. Because in the streets and buildings of Montreal, I no longer exist.

On the sidewalks are freshly laid out offerings. They are called Canang Sari and everyone seems to make them. While most of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali is predominantly Hindu, and offerings are made three times a day. The ones I see are made up of little baskets filled with rice, crackers, flowers and even cigarettes. It is later explained to me that these offerings are made in thanks, in celebration, of life’s abundance – as opposed to being made in fear like, say, Jessica Lang being turned over to an adenoidal ape in “King Kong.” Later in the day, I will see these offerings run through with tire tracks and flattened by people’s feet. And in the days to come, I will even see these sacrificial flowers clogging bar room bathroom sinks. (Another neat thing about Bali are the bathroom surprises. I’ve already seen multi-colored urinal stones and above them, at eye level, aquariums.) But right now, the sacrifices are bright like children’s book drawings.Up in the sky, over the beach, kites swirl. At first, because of the way they swoop, I think them some kind of colorful breed of daytime bat and I retract my head into my shoulders. Down below, I watch a 15-year-old Australian boy haggle with a woman his grandmother’s age over the cost of the bracelets she’s selling. She is seated down by his feet with her big see-through bag filled with colorful thread. The boy sits in a beach chair and dangles a bracelet in front of her and she snatches at it. The boy pulls it back and flashes her the smile that probably gets him out of trouble with his mom. It seems like he is taking a sadistic delight in keeping the bracelet just out of her reach while she lunges at it. He tells her it’s not worth more than 10 cents, but he will give her 50 and she should take it. You feel like you’re watching some age-old colonial drama playing out. Was Gauguin such little asshole, too?

I lay my towel out and indulge in some irrational thoughts while putting on sunscreen. Who am I to think the sun will bother tanning me let alone burn me? A man like Captain Ahab would have punched the sun in the face if it insulted him with burns, but I on the other hand squeeze lotion from the tube – the flatulent sound draws attention and makes me feel like Mr. Bean on holiday.

The desperate, reaching finger streaks of whiteness on my back will bear testament to the world of my loneliness, the shame of sitting on the beach – in this world – all by myself. As I never have occasion to take my shirt off in room light, this loneliness will only become apparent if I am in a medical emergency that necessitates my being stripped. And laid out on my stomach. I’m imagining some kind of rectal accident involving a rodent or rake.

“Call his emergency number,” the nurse will say, “but get ready for an out of service message. The poor, friendless bastard probably just made the number up.”

Check back tomorrow for part five of Jonathan Goldstein’s series “In Bali With Baggage,” or follow the daily-updated thread here.

[Illustration: Dmitry Samarov]

In Bali With Baggage: Getting There

[read earlier parts of "In Bali With Baggage" here]

It’s the first time I’ve ever traveled business class and getting on ahead of economy feels strange. I am now one of those guys I’ve always hated. Seated at the front of the plane as the second-classers trudge by, grunting and depleted, I’m tempted to call out, “I was once like you.” But instead, I sip my sparkling wine and fiddle with my screen remote. A remote. Because God forbid you should have to reach the extra 10 inches to touch the actual screen like a peasant.

One in a long list of reasons I don’t travel well is turbulence. Each tiny bump feels like I’m being pinched awake to the fact I’ll one day die. If not on this flight, some day. The whole voyage, in fact, becomes a meditation on death. And not just theoretical death but painful, visceral, smashed-against-a-mountain-balls-protruding-through-my-eye-sockets death. When I land, I am always sweaty – the book I’m reading often looking like it’s been dropped in a bathtub – but I also feel a bit reborn, and grateful.

The beauty of business class, though, is the way they ply you with drinks, and drinks make me brave. And philosophical.

“We all must die one day,” I think, as though I am a South American colonel.
I watch TV sitcoms while drunkenly coming up with travel tips. Among them: a good way to fight back against travel paranoia is to get the jump. On your first day in a new city, pick someone’s pocket. Statistically speaking, what are the chances of robbing someone and then getting robbed? Practically nil, I’d say.

Sparking wine, scotch, two glasses of red wine and port after dinner. I pass out and am actually able to sleep on a plane like I never have before. And when we land, I’m still pleasantly buzzed. Despite my prior worries, getting my visa is a breeze. Not only that, but the airport smells of incense.

Outside I catch a cab. The streets are narrow and twist and turn. I do not see one traffic light. There are a million things going on and much to honk at. My first thought is that the Balinese are a very honky people.

“You like girls?” the cab driver asks while leaning on his horn for no obvious reason. “I’ll get you.”

“No thanks,” I say.

“Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re alright.”

On the way to the hotel, we pass Circle Ks, Alfa Marts, Mini Marts and Maxi Marts. Everything is so topsy-turvy that, sometimes, the Minis are larger than the Maxies. This was also the case with my grandparents’ friends, Minnie and Maxie Greenberg. Bali clearly plays by its own rules. I only hope I can learn them.

Check back tomorrow for part four of Jonathan Goldstein’s series “In Bali With Baggage,” or follow the daily-updated thread here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user ^Riza^]